What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do


Guest post by Andy Smithson

“He won’t listen to a word I say. He just ignores me,” exclaimed the mother of one very energetic, spirited five year old boy. She sat across from me in my counseling office and continued, “I try to take things away. I try to put him in time out. I try everything. I just don’t know what to do! When he doesn’t respond to my directions, I get so frustrated! I don’t want to be mean, but after a million times of asking the same thing he’s got to learn to do what I ask, so I give him a little swat.” 

Spanking stems from not knowing what else to do.

The phrase, “I just don’t know what to do,” is very common with parents. I would venture to say that almost all of us have thought or said these words before.  When we feel this way it often leads to confusion, anxiety, anger and subsequently impulsive spanking and yelling.

It’s been solidly established that spanking and yelling are not effective means of discipline, but spanking and yelling often come into play when we don’t know what else to do. Even parents that use spanking as a planned discipline often use it because they don’t know what else to do to enforce a boundary or limit and bring about learning. It’s important to work on a plan ahead of time and decide how you will respond to certain issues before they arise.  This allows us to override our automatic negative feelings and programmed reactions.

Bust out of the “I don’t know what to do” cycle.

Because of the cyclic nature of child and human growth, we can often anticipate conflicts before they arise and plan for how we will act and intervene. However, it is helpful to establish some general default actions as a parent to fall back on when something does catch us off guard. We can prepare for the next time around by setting patterns of collaboration and planning to make personalized interventions that help teach your child, build the relationship and help you to build your own skills.

Try the following practical skills and patterns to help you plan ahead instead of falling back on yelling or spanking…

Focus on Controlling your actions, not your child’s:

In the moment when you are faced with something you are not prepared for, the first step is always to look inward and manage your own thoughts, emotions and actions. If we can control our own emotions and express them in positive ways, even when your child is not doing as they are asked or controlling their behavior, we have already taught a more important and effective disciplinary lesson than we would by yelling or spanking. Use these skills to help you focus on your own actions and intervene first with yourself.

Breathe and relax. 

Find humor

Have a default song, poem, image, that focuses your mind and encourages positive thinking.

Take a break. Simply decide to postpone your intervention.

Be honest. Tell them you don’t know what to do.

One of the most effective ways I have found for parents to learn to keep their cool is to practice mindful relaxation (Deep breathing or progressive relaxation) every day for at least 5-10 minutes. This skill only works when we create a plan and habit of practicing it often. It’s like learning a sport, if you don’t practice it off the field, it will be even more difficult to perform on the field. You can also practice the skills above or others that work for you.

Teach and model positive behaviors and solutions during the good times:

Set aside a time when your child is happy and you can genuinely connect with them to teach positive skills and values. Make your teaching interesting and fun. If your 5 year old struggles with tantrums you might have him hold up stop or go signs in response to various reactions to different realistic scenarios. You could also teach deep breathing by blowing bubbles together.  Explore books that teach them how to resolve conflict, calm down, brainstorm solutions or other skills. Invite your child during these good times to offer solutions for the common, reoccurring problem. Allow them to contribute to setting firm limits and boundaries about what you and they will do next time the issue arises.

Establishing your plan for action during the next cycle of misbehavior:

Create a plan that addresses the cycle for next time around. Again, make plans for what you will do, not what your child will do and then stick with it.

Identify and follow through with natural consequences. If a child writes on the wall, a natural consequence is that they need to help clean it up. If a child refuses to fulfill a chore or responsibility, a natural consequence is that they are unable to play with friends or outside until the task is complete. A natural consequence of tantrums is that they may miss out on an activity during the tantrum or we simply hold firm on the decision that triggered the tantrum and move forward.

Establish healthy boundaries that allow us to remove ourselves from the power struggle. Ultimately, we can’t make our child do anything, but we can influence them by using words that let them know our limits and then follow through. For example when we make a request of our child and it results in our child ignoring or complaining, we can simply set a boundary by saying, “You are free to come to lunch as soon as you’re done.” In other circumstances you might say, “I would love to help you as long as you are treating me kindly.” In the case of a child making demands at the grocery store, we could say, “I’m not going to purchase that, but if you would like to buy it with your own money next time, you are welcome to do so.” Once you’ve set the boundary, refrain from nagging. Simply let your child make his own choice and stick to the boundaries set.


Forgive and plan ways to reconnect and quickly overcome sore feelings.

It’s important to realize that there will be times that our children lose it, but that does not have to negatively affect our relationship. Relationship is what gives influence and ultimately joy in families. It’s important to plan for ways to quickly forgive hurt feelings and reconnect with our child after a conflict has occurred. The more quickly we can reengage them in positive thoughts, moods and actions, the more effective you can be in teaching and building new cycles of growth and success.

Having a plan sets us free

Making a comprehensive plan with your child of how to proceed in difficult moments is more labor intensive than giving a quick swat after a child has “misbehaved,” but it is far more effective in teaching them valuable skills and behavior, building the parent/child relationship and upgrading our own personal skills and interpersonal abilities. This is TRU Parenting!

When we have a great plan in place, it gives us freedom from the confusion and panic of the “I don’t know what to do cycle.”  Remember, the sign of great parenting is not the child’s behavior. The sign of great parenting is the parent’s behavior!


Andy Smithson is a Licensed Masters Social worker, psychotherapist, writer, speaker and most importantly husband and father of three energetic boys and a heart melting girl. Andy and his family live in Burley, Id. along the scenic Snake River. They enjoy the river in the summer and  the mountains in the winter. Andy has worked with kids and families for years in counseling, parenting classes and seminars and providing in-home parent coaching. He loves to see families build powerful cycles of growth through TRU Parenting principles of Teaching, Relationship and Upgrading themselves. You can find Andy’s blog @, www.truparenting.net. Connect with him on Facebook and twitter. Download your FREE ebook from TRU Parenting at http://truparenting.net/products/.

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